Include the Views of Many When Planning Physical Activity Campaigns

Our Lay Adviser Stephen Morrison writes a poignant blog from our recent conference Walk 500 Miles.

Like many physical activity advocates, I am guilty of illustrating both the costs and benefits of inactivity and activity in percentage terms. I will often use figures such as 100% more likely to die prematurely if you are inactive or 30% less chance of developing heart disease or diabetes if you are active when trying to encourage others to be more active.

In the real world however, where people are struggling to find employment, feed their children (229,000 children living below poverty line in Scotland) and feel that they have a purpose in life, do these numbers actually mean anything?

This was one of the questions posed by Sir Harry Burns at the recent Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine UK (FSEM) and British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine (BASEM) Walk 500 Miles Sport and Exercise Medicine Conference in Edinburgh.

He asked how we could hope to inspire and encourage more people to become active, when too many felt hopeless and alienated. When too many believe that they are not in control of their own lives and lack a nurturing and supportive network of family and friends, how can we convince them that going for a walk or buying a bicycle will improve their lot?

If we are to reduce the crippling cost of inactivity, Sir Harry Burns argued that we need to focus on increasing wellness by creating a social, economic and physical environment which encourages, supports and inspires self belief and behavioural change through positive social interaction.

In my opinion, medics and activists cannot accomplish this alone. The Toronto Charter and Sir Harry Burns both press for a more holistic approach to inactivity that encompasses seven key best investments, that include urban design and transport policies that prioritise active travel and active lives; community wide programs that involve and engage all and media campaigns and education programmes that will raise awareness and alter the public’s views on sport and physical activity. Many of these investments can only be made at Government and Local Authority levels. They can only work if Ministers, employers, house builders and transport operators are committed to regulations that put physical activity at the forefront of their planning.

Is this happening? Are we focusing enough on the environments we live, work and play in? Are we putting out key messages that people understand, are we involving people from across our communities and are we committing significant resources to addressing our inactivity pandemic? Just this week the Government released its plan to get more people cycling. Sustrans and other organisations have criticised it for a lack of funding and vision.

At 500 Miles, Sir Harry Burns quoted the World Health Organisation’s definition of health before introducing me to a new word:

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

The word that Sir Harry Burns introduced me to was “Salutogenesis”. Coined by Aaron Antonovsky, it is an approach that focuses on what we need to cope with the stresses of life.

This is particularly important when we consider how we can improve social well-being and overcome the hardships that many face, that prevent them from considering more active lives. For those that struggle with day to day life, it has been shown that there are three components that provide people with a sense of how they can cope with stress:

Comprehensibility: a belief that things happen in an orderly and predictable fashion and a sense that you can understand events in your life and reasonably predict what will happen in the future.

Manageability: a belief that you have the skills or ability, the support, the help, or the resources necessary to take care of things, and that things are manageable and within your control.

Meaningfulness: a belief that things in life are interesting and a source of satisfaction, that things are really worthwhile and that there is good reason or purpose to care about what happens

Do we believe that the current ways in which we promote and encourage physical activity fully incorporate these components? Again and again, I open my newspapers or go on to social media to read about television and sports stars, chartered accountants, lawyers and medics taking up physical challenges and committing to national programmes to get the public more active. I constantly read about fantastic events and developments in London, which is great if you live in, near or can get to London. I look at mass participation events that are priced out of reach of many of the masses.  Do these, in any way, resonate with those who, according to Sir Harry Burns, feel disenfranchised and alienated?

We must do more to include the views and aspirations of the many when planning on how to deliver physical activity campaigns, if we are to reach and connect with them. We must reach out to them in their communities and via social and mass media and speak to them in language that they understand, not in percentages or in costs to the NHS or the economy. We must invest fully in delivering effective and proven initiatives.

Again, I suggest, we must adopt a different approach.

Stephen Morrison is Lay Adviser to the FSEM UK and works for the Department for Work and Pensions. He is an everyday Physical Activity Champion for HASSRA Scotland, a Fitness Day UK Ambassador, and Jamie Oliver Food Revolution Ambassador. Having turned his life and health around with exercise, Stephen’s agenda is to raise awareness of health inequalities and push for a more holistic approach to inactivity within community wide programmes. Stephen also champions the management of obesity with physical activity, the issues surrounding this in the public domain and a call for “a different approach”. Stephen is also a columnist for Man v Fat and charts his journey as a try athlete at http://howmanymiles.co.uk/